HARARE, Sept 6 (Reuters) – When Robert Mugabe’s armed
followers stormed onto white-owned farms, the output of one of
Africa’s most prosperous agriculture sectors collapsed and the
country was driven to the brink of starvation. No issue more
clearly defines the polarising legacy of the Zimbabwean leader,
who died on Friday at 95.
Mugabe always portrayed the redistribution of land as the
central task of his mission to undo the racist inheritance of
colonial rule, and the economic crisis that followed as a
Western conspiracy. To his foes, it was a lawless grab for power
and wealth that nearly destroyed the country.
When white-ruled Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, white
people, who made up just 5% of the population, owned nearly
three quarters of agricultural land – an imbalance that all
sides agreed had to change but without agreeing exactly how.
The issue was to form the basis of Mugabe’s infamous falling
out with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 and the
invasion of white-owned farms three years later that sent the
economy into a tailspin.
The redistribution of land was initially to be governed by
the Lancaster House Agreement that formed the basis of the
transition from minority rule, which allowed for the compulsory
purchase of under-used land, while requiring compensation. It
said the reform had to be delayed 10 years.
There was no formal stipulation in the agreement for Britain
to fund land programmes, although in the two decades after
independence London provided 44 million pounds for resettlement
initiatives. The United States also provided some funding.
But many white farmers dug their heels in, hiding behind the
“willing buyer-willing seller” principle, and the overall
programme achieved less than half its targets.
It was also plagued by allegations of graft, and when Blair
came to power in 1997 he made it very clear that Britain –
particularly under his left-leaning Labour party – had no
obligation to finance land redistribution.
Mugabe responded by drafting a new constitution that allowed
for the compulsory purchase of land without compensation. The
charter was defeated in a referendum in 2000.
A few days later, members of the pro-Mugabe War Veterans
Association started to occupy white-owned farms under what came
to be known as the “Fast-Track Land Reform Programme”.
For the economy, it was the beginning of the end.
Over the next eight years, GDP contracted 40% and the
currency went into a tailspin as dollars from exports and
foreign investment dried up.
Printing money only made matters worse, unleashing
hyperinflation that would go on to top 500 billion percent in
2008 before a unity government forged between Mugabe and
opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai scrapped the currency.
At the purely agricultural level, the seizures resulted in
the transfer of 8 million hectares of land – 20% of Zimbabwe’s
area – across 4,500 farms to more than 160,000 households,
according to official figures.
Many of the most profitable farms ended up in the hands of
well-connected public figures, including Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
Recent studies have suggested overall agricultural output is
getting back to mid-1990s levels, with around a third of the new
black farmers now being considered as “serious” large-scale
After Mugabe was ousted by his own armed forces in 2017, his
successor Emmerson Mnangagwa promised to compensate white
farmers who lost their land. The government set aside $6 million
from this year’s budget for initial payments targeting those in
financial distress, with full compensation to be paid later.